Greater than the slum of its parts

AFTER nine months negotiating with the jetsetting Dutch ''starchitect'' Rem Koolhaas, the documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit finally nailed down an onscreen interview.

Known for pithy predictions as much as iconic buildings, the architect behind Beijing's CCTV tower duly delivered.

"The first thing he said was, 'I'm not really that interested in cities any more, I'm interested in the countryside'," Hustwit laughs. The segment was unusable.

The trouble being that Hustwit's film, Urbanized, is about urbanism, not ruralism.

"People are coming to cities, they're not leaving them right now," he says. "That's where the challenges are, and where the effort and thinking has got to be."

His film has the numbers to prove it, citing several agoraphobia-inducing statistics. Melbourne may be wrestling with medium-density today but, by 2050, 75 per cent of the world's population will live in cities.

One-third of the planet will live in slums. Mumbai will be the size of London and New York combined.

"If you just look at the numbers and the trend lines it's profoundly depressing,'' Edgar Pieterse, director of African Centre for Cities, says in the film.

"But what we know from history is that you need small group of innovators that can demonstrate how to do things differently. Once that gets mainstreamed, change happens really quickly."

So, while Urbanized features such celebrities as Koolhaas and Sir Norman Foster, architects and architecture are not the heroes and subject of this movie.

Rich with case studies and typically expert opinion, Hustwit's third film on design introduces us to the multitude of individuals who create our beguiling, often exotic, metropolises.

As New York's City Planning director, Amanda Burden, reminds us, everything on the street has been designed, from the width of the footpath, to the height of buildings and their setback, to how the street furniture interacts.

"Each one of these things has been thought about," she says.

While design occupies much of our lifestyle supplements, Hustwit has almost singlehandedly eked out a career as a design documentary maker.

In the past seven years he has produced and directed three ambitious projects that alert general audiences to subjects they might often take for granted.

His directorial debut, Helvetica, examines the ubiquitous typeface, while his second, Objectified, explores product design. Urbanized tackles perhaps the most pressing subject in the world today: how we design our cities to accommodate the massive migratory populations.

Championing community activism may not have been Hustwit's agenda, but it forms a significant chunk of his sedately paced story. Indeed, if heroes are to be found in Urbanized it's here: the creator of a community garden in derelict Detroit, the Bogota mayor who introduced bicycle lanes, and the community leaders who championed the retrofitting of the post-industrial wasteland that became the celebrated High Line, in New York.

"The ideas behind these projects are just as important and just as powerful as the ideas of a Rem Koolhaas or a Norman Foster," says Hustwit, who spent 2½ years on the project.

Indeed, architects don't always fair well. Brad Pitt's much-lauded New Orleans reconstruction commission receives a rare, and quite funny, rebuke. "It's like a bunch of architects from the West Coast came in doing all these buildings without a landscape plan," drawls Grover Mouton, director of the Tulane Regional Urban Design Centre.

The lessons go beyond disaster zone rebuilding. An essential element is to have architecture with context. Just as important is community engagement and understanding human behaviour.

For American audiences at least, the "godmother" to many of these community activists is journalist Jane Jacobs.

"She embodies the idea that you don't have to be a professional or a politician or an architect to have an impact on your city or all cities," says Hustwit.

Just as Jacobs stopped freeways from tearing through Greenwich Village, the activists Hustwit follows fight their own battles for a better, more liveable city.

Speakeasy Cinema presents Urbanized, Capitol Cinema, 113 Swanston Street, Melbourne, July 19, 7pm; A panel discussion on urban futures follows with Rob Adams, Melbourne's director of city design.

speakeasycinema.com.au

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